We didn't plan it this way.
When we stepped into the car after dinner, I looked at my driving buddy, Jason, and took a deep breath.We weren't supposed to be beginning our drive to Bryce Canyon from Mesa Verde at 8:30 in the evening. This meant at least another six hours and yet another drive through the night for us.
"Let's do this."
He smiled, and with guts of determination and a cooler full of Five Hour Energy and Starbucks Double Shots, we set off.
How'd we get ourselves into this? How did we get knocked off our plan?
Well, that's just it--our plan was to get knocked off our plan.
From the beginning, we've said that we don't care about any single item on our itinerary enough to be heartbroken if we missed it. We wanted to be open to explore whatever we came upon, or came upon us.
That's why we stopped to lie down on a road in the middle of the night in Kansas, why we grabbed pictures with the world's largest Czech egg, why we pulled the car over to climb a hill and look at the mountains around us, why Jason filmed me running through a field in the frigid morning air of the Rockies, why we slid down a bank and tramped through the snow at the Continental Divide, why we went hours out of our way to check out a bluegrass festival in Telluride, why we've stopped the car or turned around or said, "You wanna?" dozens of times.
Planning is good. I like to plan. But since our best-laid plans so often go astray, the best option might actually be to allow room to break from the master plan.
Which leads me to my favorite moment of our road trip so far, and it came only because we were behind schedule, only because we said "yes" to driving through the night anyway, and only because we said "yes" to the moment when it arrived.
The only light left in the sky was a faint glow of orange above the western horizon. We were flying down the road in the desert of Utah. Our headlights were on, and most of the rocky, craggy surroundings had begun to fade to black.
This is why I love my friend Jason: when we saw the sign for Natural Bridges National Monument, he had the same flicker in his eye that I did. That flicker said, "Who cares if it's dark--why not check it out?"
And when we pulled off the loop view drive, he didn't just stand at the railing, content to look into the darkness from afar. He walked down the trail, all the way to the railing that overlooked the Sipapu natural bridge.
And when we saw a sign for the Sipapu trailhead, he agreed to pull over and look at it.
And when we saw that the trailhead could take us down to look at Sipapu close up, and I asked, "Do you want to do it?" He replied, "Yes."
I love friends like this because it would only take one excuse out of the hundred that were valid to leave this adventure dead in the water, a boat without a motor or paddle or current:
I'm too tired. It's dark. We don't have time. We should be driving. I don't even think we're allowed to do this. (Technically, none of the signs prohibit hiking at night. Not that it would have stopped me.) What if...? But what about...?
Every once in a while, the stars align just right, and you say yes and the people with you say yes, and you find yourself in the midst of one of those forever memories in the making.
We grabbed flashlights and a pack of emergency gear, looked at the black abyss below, looked up at the stars popping out one by one above, and crossed the threshold of the trailhead.
I'll skip past our fumbling around the smooth stone and sand of the trail and the near face-plant I made into a giant spider web, and past the moment of heart attack when we heard thunderous flapping of a bird overhead (and since I'm no bird expert, I can only assume it was either a pterodactyl or baby dragon).
Within twenty minutes or so, we were stretched on our backs against the lines of the bowl that lies around the monument. Above us was the silhouette of world's second-largest natural arch bridge, Sipapu--black in the night, imposing. Beyond Sipapu was a clear sky saturated with stars, with an occasional meteor streaking by.
And I had one of those moments where all I could do was whisper to Jason, "This is unbelievable." How many people get to see Sipapu like this?
What's harder to fathom is the narrow margin by which we could have missed an opportunity like this.
Lying there, swallowed up by Sipapu and the night, I couldn't help but cling tighter to the idea that life is better when we open ourselves up to surprise, to the unexpected, to the deviation from Plan A.
It's not always possible. Sometimes, it's hard as hell.
But every once in a while, you pull that lever and the slots line up just right--triple cherries, triple cherries, triple cherries.
I've found that it starts with two things:
Learning how to say "yes" more to the types of things your heart wants--which is not necessarily jumping out of your car to descend 500 feet into a canyon in the pitch black of night. That's what my heart wants. I think it would be a tragedy for you to read this and think you should be more like me. We've already wasted too much time trying to be someone else or live someone else's life, haven't we?
Start saying yes to what your heart wants, and only you know what that is.
When someone asks me, "Do you want to come to this get-together I'm having to showcase my <insert health/cosmetic/clothing/insurance/whatever product here>?" I say, "No." In my head, I actually say, "Dear God no--I'd rather read the dictionary or rearrange the tupperware drawer." Because that's not what my heart wants. Not even close. But if someone says, "Do you want to meet up for <insert wings/cheesesteak/meat products/beer/coffee/conversation here>?" I say, "Absolutely." Because my heart wants that--good times with good people.
The problem is that we've already said yes to too many other things, or we've learned how to say yes to the wrong things. A lot of us have learned to say yes to comfort or security, so that when an opportunity for something that could lead us to what we really want comes along, we're answered for. Sometimes we have to sacrifice our comfort zones and our secure positions a little bit to say yes to better things.
Riding with someone in your passenger seat who says "yes" is a big deal, too.
Which, in a nutshell, means: the people you do life with matters. I've found the right people like this: I go full-speed ahead with life and what I want whether people are on board with me or not. The ones who catch up and want to hitch a ride are the ones who will continue to help me say "yes" to what will make me most fully alive. Find them. Hold on to them.
We shouldn't completely ditch everyone else in our lives, but these people are the ones who will propel us the furthest, so it helps to choose our time with people wisely.
Thanks to my co-pilot, we have a story from that Utah desert that's better than anything we managed to plan on our itinerary.
Plan to break your plans, and find people who can do the same. More often than not, you find something better than what you originally tried for.
Feature photo: ©2013 David Kingham | Flickr